The State of the Union and International Students

President Obama delivers the State of the Union (Photo: AP)
President Obama delivers the State of the Union (Photo: AP)

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night focused a lot of attention on American education.

He praised U.S. universities, saying, “We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth” (although he failed to note that the U.S. share of foreign students is dropping, and, if you don’t include China, the number of international students in the U.S. last year actually fell), and called for maintaining increasing education funding.

He also emphasized that American schools are unique in their focus on critical thinking, saying, “What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea … It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like: ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world?'”

But the part of the speech that caught my eye most was when he talked specifically about student visas:

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.

Obama has touted educational exchanges in many of his overseas trips and messages, most recently encouraging Indonesian students to study in the U.S. But this was the first time I can recall him talking about keeping those same students in the U.S. after their studies (correct me if I’m wrong and you have an example).

Here’s how some reacted on Twitter:

Farima told me by email:

I do agree with President Obama that the International students could contribute to the nation, if they are allowed to stay in the US.

The International students might have ideas about how they would make the relation of the US and their country better with their careers. They can hold leadership positions in International business; teach others their languages as teachers, work as journalists in their country’s television that broadcast from the US. Overall, there are many other positions that the International students could hold after graduating from college.

Everyone might have a different point of view on this topic, but it really depends on what you want to do with your future. So, if the students decide to stay in the US and pursue their careers, it will be a gift granted to the US.

Our bloggers Nick and Nareg spoke to our Crossroads Asia radio program to discuss their impressions of the speech, including the section on student visa holders.

[I’ll include a link to their full interview as soon as it’s available…]

Nick called Obama’s comments “a very smart address” :

I mean, I’m studying here under American scholarship.  It’s all American money and I do want to give back in some way.  If America is willing to accommodate us foreign students, then surely we are willing to give a little back as well.

Nareg keyed in on the implication that when foreign students return home after their U.S. education it is a loss to America:

I imagine that whichever international student returns to their country, returns with the full knowledge that they have received a wonderful education in the United States and that they owe a great great deal to this country.  I will bear that feeling of gratitude for the rest of my life.

It struck me as interesting that the president talked about foreign students and illegal immigrants in the same breath.  He’s referring to the controversial and recently failed DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for minors brought into the country illegally.  I wonder if by associating illegal immigration, which is an extremely contentious issue, with student visas, which is less so, he ends up helping his case for passing the DREAM Act or hurting the case for easing F-1 visa transfers.

In the end, Obama’s comments on student visas may simply fly under the radar. The State of the Union is known for containing throwaway sections that serve as a sort of presidential wish list (remember Bush’s plea for legislation banning genetically-engineered human-animal hybrids?).

Still, it was fun to be mentioned, right?